Whisky and Wagyu: Matching Japanese whisky with food

Whisky and Wagyu: matching Japanese whisky with food

by Tom Shingler 22 January 2016

We talk to David Wrigley of Tonkotsu as he prepares to host an evening of Japanese food and whisky at Harry Gordon's Bar in Selfridges.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

Japanese cuisine has been gaining momentum in the UK since the 1980s, but it looks like 2016 will be when it breaks through into the mainstream and turns into one of the hottest trends of the decade. Throughout February and March, Selfridges is hosting a series of dining experiences celebrating everything great about Japan’s food and drink. On 23 February, the Oxford Street branch will be serving up dishes from Japanese restaurant Tonkotsu and pairing them with Nikka whiskies (buy tickets here). General manager and avid Japanese whisky fan David Wrigley is the man responsible for matching the two together – we had a chat with him to find out how it matches up to Scotch.

‘Japanese whisky will always be Scotch’s little brother,’ he says. ‘Having spent many years trying to be just like him, he is now branching out in many weird and wild directions to exert his individuality. The godfather of Japanese whisky, Masetaka Taketsuru, who was the master distiller at Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery and founder of Nikka, trained in Scotland for many years before returning home with his Scottish bride. He left Suntory with the intention of aping Scotch even more closely at his Yoichi distillery in the far north of Japan.’

Despite Masetaka’s original aim to recreate Scotch as closely as possible on his home turf, the expressions which started to come out of Japan have slightly different (albeit incredibly subtle) differences. ‘Japanese whisky tends to have fewer hard edges,’ explains David. ‘Harmony is important, so they tend to be more balanced and well rounded. Japan produces peated whisky but nothing as smoky and medicinal as Laphroaig, and the distillers like a sherry cask but nothing competes with the full oloroso experience of Glen Dronach. On the whole however, most people would struggle to pick out a Japanese whisky from a line-up of Scotches.’

Perfect pairings

Whisky in general isn’t usually seen on drinks flights in restaurants – wine, beer and cocktails tend to hog the limelight. But David believes it’s a very underrated spirit, especially when it comes to food matching. ‘Whisky has the robustness and body that can match up to fried foods in a way beer and certainly wine simply can’t,’ he says. ‘A whisky serve is also very versatile; if you’ve got the right flavours to match a dish but they are coming on a little too strong, you can just add water or soda to make a highball.’

The process used to match whiskies to the dishes on Tonkotsu’s menu is similar to what a wine sommelier would do. The terroir is just as important, and it was something David kept in mind when choosing the most suitable Nikka whiskies. ‘Expressions from a coastal region like the islands of Scotland or the coast of Hokkaido tend to bring with them the vigorous, salty elements of their home,’ he tells us. ‘They therefore pair very well with fish and sushi in particular. I often look to pick out distinct tastes and aromas from a whisky and think how those elements work with food. For example, a whisky that’s particularly nutty I will try and pair with something earthy like mushrooms. If a whisky has a strong orchard fruit character, then I’ll match it with pork.’

The night at Selfridges sees six different dishes paired with six different whiskies, but David’s favourite pairing is the okonomiyaki with a Yamazaki 18-Year-Old. ‘Okonomiyaki is cabbage tossed in batter with prawns, fried and steamed with pork belly then finished with Tonkatsu sauce, kewpie mayonnaise and dried bonito flakes,’ he says. ‘It’s fishy, salty, sweet and savoury. The Yamazaki 18 is a great sherried beast with notes of salty pickled plums and prunes to match the Tonkatsu sauce, orchard fruit to match the pork belly, sherry to match the prawns and enough weight and heft to make the whole thing hang together. Ridiculously delicious.’

Expressions from a coastal region like the islands of Scotland or the coast of Hokkaido tend to bring with them the vigorous, salty elements of their home. They therefore pair very well with fish and sushi in particular.

David Wrigley